I remember reading a book by Frank Bartleman, who documented the events leading up to the Azusa Street Revival which took place at the start of the 20th century. While I appreciated the book and found it interesting, there was one line that really stuck with me in an off-putting way: “We need no more theology or theory. Let the devil have them. Let us get to God.” (Bartleman, Frank. Frank Bartleman’s Azusa Street: Firsthand Accounts of the Revival. Edited by Roberts Liardon. Shippensburg, PA, Destiny Image Publishers, Inc., 2006, p. 97.)
Now within context, Bartleman’s line is not so bad, for to some extent he was really just joining Jesus in reprimanding religious folk for “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mk 7:7). But this isolated statement represents pretty well the way in which some Christians think. They act as though theology is stupid and a bane to Christianity. But those who actually buy into this mentality often end up destroying the church because they design their understanding of God first and foremost by their experiences of Him rather than the Scriptures or tradition. This is exactly how you make God in your own image.
Theology is hugely important to our Christian lives and was once known as “the queen of the sciences.” If we don’t allow it to inform our faith, we may easily find ourselves exiting the faith without even noticing it and worshipping a version of God that doesn’t line up with the Bible. When we live out Bartleman’s expression in its extremist form and do away with theology, we don’t actually “Get to God;” nor do we end up breaking away from teaching the commandments of men as doctrine; rather, we end up worshipping someone who is not God and teach the experiences of men as doctrine.
Is that really the kind of Christianity we want to be a part of? One that has the flexibility for God to become whatever we want Him to become? Or would we rather know who God is according to His Holy Word, written by people who knew Him throughout the ages and kept records of His words and works? Because that’s what theology is. And if we want to pitch that out the window, I’d suggest that we’ve just begun to walk down a road that will turn us into your own god.
And so, as a good Wesleyan, I try to come to my understanding of God with a hierarchy in which to process my theology. I seek to know God through Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—and in that specific order. (Many know this theological method as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.)
That order is not always how my heart is organized. Like most people, I prefer that my experience inform everything else, but then when I stop and think about those I know who live that way, I realize I don’t really trust them very much on spiritual matters.
Likewise, I hardly want tradition to be the second thing that informs my thinking, but then again, I think of those who have spoken strong heresies because they don’t care what others have generally accepted before them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that tradition can’t be broken—after all, we get the idea that tradition is the second most important way to process theology from John Wesley, who wasn’t exactly the most traditional of ministers.
These four cornerstones of theology (Scripture, tradition, reason and experience) can inform each other, counteract each other, and at times override each other. But it’s important that they’re all there to work in unison to create theology. A theology based on Scripture alone creates legalism. A theology based on tradition alone, creates man-made religion. A theology based on reason alone is nothing more than science and philosophy. And a theology based on experience alone is nothing more than madness and heresy. A theology based on the four working together in their respective places in the hierarchy is the queen of sciences we call theology.
It may sound mundane or boring, but these things are crucial to understand if we ever want to know how our spiritual life should work. If we don’t understand the relationship between the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and ourselves, heresy will corner us on all sides. The fine details of this particular topic are much more important than you might have thought they could be and they speak volumes as to who we are as Christians and how we are to live.
If we don’t get proper theology in order, we are bound to make incredible statements that have no grounding in the Bible. While the experience of the Holy Spirit is important to have in our life, this experience is often so strong and intoxicating that it has the potential to cause us to leave scholarship at the door and create a Christianity that lives and breathes based on these moments.
And on the other side of the coin, those who belittle these supernatural experiences tend to create theology based on reason alone, which really is a stunning feat. When you’ve taken the easy path of enlightenment and turned the supernatural stories in the Bible into metaphor, you haven’t really struggled with the Bible at all. You’ve created the terms of engagement rather than let the Bible engage you.
There are problems on all sides of the conversation and many of those problems exist because of our arrogance. It is time we let the Bible speak for itself in the fullness of what theology should be. When we do this, we will find a rich understanding of God laid out for us to grasp onto and our lives changed because of it.